Working Lives

Printing Co-ordinator, The Birmingham Mail (1940s-1950s)

Location: Birmingham

Margaret tells us about her time with the Birmingham Mail as the only woman working in the office. 

Austin Motor Works

My mother worked for quite a long time at Austin Motor Works. During the war time she was making ammunitions. She was very happy there but unfortunately she did suffer with epilepsy, so there were periods when she didn’t work.

She did try to get me a little job up there. I worked there for six weeks and thought that I had permanently lost my hearing because of the noise from the engines. I just could not get over the volume of noise.

One day the man who was in charge of the area that I was in said, ‘There’s a policeman outside for you’ and he’d come to tell me that my husband had fallen and broken his leg playing tennis. And I was never so glad in all my life because I thought, ‘That’s it! I can stop work!’ Because the noise was horrendous!

That was also the very first time that I understood where the saying ‘throwing a spanner in the works’ came from, because that is literally what happened. The conveyor belts with all the engines on, if there were too many waiting for pieces or parts, somebody would ‘accidentally’ drop something on the track and stop the track. Everybody would have to sit and wait till the engineer came to fix the track. It happened very often. Out came the newspaper and the cups of tea as a break from the noise.

The Birmingham Mail

In the late forties, when I was nineteen I started to work at The Birmingham Mail, which was based in New Street and Needless Alley.

I didn’t know what job I was going to look for so I applied to an agency and they sent me to The Mail. I went and saw Mr Cann, he asked me what experience I’d had and I said that I’d worked in the offices at Triplex, the glass manufacturer.

It was a very large building and I was in charge of the local newsagents. They were only small newsagents and I used to ring in to adjust the number of papers that they required.

The bigger newsagents, of course, had so many papers they didn’t need to adjust their numbers. It was a very interesting job, permanently on the phone. When things were changed I’d ring down to the department that was sending out the newspapers in the vans, for them to adjust the quantity there.

I wasn’t nervous about using the phone as I had been using the phone at my previous job, but it was a bit of a responsibility to know that if I made a mistake, it was my fault. Generally if I did the men in the office would tell me straight off, but then it was done with.

I was the only woman in that particular office and all the men were older than me. They spoilt me to bits to start with, but I soon learnt the job and I was on an equal footing then. They were all very, very pleasant. They called a spade a spade and didn’t hold any grudges against anyone.

It was rare that you saw any women there, only in the office on the ground floor, secretaries, typists behind the desks there.

Travelling to work

My mode of transport then was the tram, which shook you to death! By the time you got into town from Northfield along the Bristol Road, you were really shaky. It took a good half an hour journey into town, very cold, very shaky.

I didn’t know anyone at that time who was going in the same direction as me. I like nature and I was just absorbed with what I could see en route. The tram line was in the centre of the road, of course, and there were trees lining the whole route into Birmingham. Very nice, very green and pleasant.

There were more trees around then than now. Bourneville have built a lot of flats along the Bristol Road so a lot of trees have been taken down.

The trams were far more reliable than the buses. We used to have an awful lot of fog then and on several occasions my boss at The Mail would say, ‘Look at the weather. You’d better leave early to get home’.

I was married at eighteen and for the first twelve years I lived with my parents because you had to be on the housing list with the council. My husband had just come out of the forces, neither of us had got any money, so my parents were golden. Looked after us very well.

The Birmingham Mail office and post war optimism

The office was quite a young office. It was quite an optimistic time, the war was over and I think that everybody thought well there’s got to be a new start now, a fresh start. We’ve got to rebuild and start all over again. People were very optimistic. Still struggling with rationings but the trauma of it was over, so it was just a matter of rebuilding. Lots of bombings so there was lots to rebuild.

The paper printed stories about the casualties, and the rebuilding of the destroyed buildings, and how fortunate it was that some of them had been missed.

I was on the first floor. The ground floor mainly had the offices where people came in to put adverts in, or order something. The basement was where all the presses were. I think I only went down there once because it was too dangerous, really, for people to roam around. Enormous great machines and the noise of the presses going through! Again, it was the noise that seemed to get to you. I don’t know how the people who worked in there managed.

I had a great long, long desk with an enormous book of all the names of the little local shops in. A lot of the smaller shops were rural and the names of all the places used to fascinate me!

I would transfer the names and addresses onto the next page. It was all handwritten, not printed. I’d be adding new agents and deleting those that had given up. I would rewrite the record maybe a couple of times a week depending on what was happening. The rulers which we used were round like a baton, no markings on them. You’d use it with your ledger to draw lines and keep the margin.

It was very quiet in the office. Sometimes somebody would shout an order, ‘have you got this ?’, or, ‘Do you know that?’, but that would be all you’d hear. No music playing or anything like that.

The head of our department was a lovely man. His name was Mr Jessop, he was a very fair man, very nice. He would just stroll around, not interfere.

The desks were in long rows. I was up by the window and there was another gentleman at the end of this desk, doing very much the same thing, but with the ‘sports’ side of the paper. Behind me there’d be another long desk with two gentleman there and that’s how it was, all the way down the office room and then down the other side. Yes, it was a big long room.

The other men on the floor were working on the Daily Mail, and I think the partner of that was the Daily Express so I think they were all in conjunction, you know. It was all to do with the printing of the paper.

We had a half hour mid-morning coffee break, and that was brought round to us. That was nice! We had a half hour lunch break and I used to go to the café which was right opposite. Sometimes I used to go with one of the men, he was a younger man, and we would just sit and chat about anything other than work. We wanted a break from it. With him it would be football, with me mainly art.

Then mid-afternoon, four o’clock we’d have a cup of tea. ‘Put your pencils down’, stop work and chat in groups. Sometimes if things quietened down I would get bored and that’s when I would perhaps go and stand and talk to the other men in the office, or if they were busy I’d watch what they were doing. And if all that failed I used to stand at the window and see what was going on outside.

I could see the little café opposite and a gentleman’s outfitter next door. My husband had Wednesday afternoons off and he used to sit in that café and wait for me to finish work. We would have something to eat and we’d go to the Odeon cinema. He used to go into the gentleman’s outfitter and have a little wander round there as well. It was a very narrow little one way street, no room for cars to park or anything like that.

When I went out I wouldn’t be seen without a hat, gloves, shoes all to match, but not to work. It wasn’t done for ladies to wear trousers, unless you were in the Forces, of course, so it was skirts. It wasn’t a uniform, you could wear what you liked. It was ladylike to wear a skirt.

Free papers for employees

As an employee we got a free paper and we would pick it up on the way out, going home on a night. The paper was sent out and distributed to the various shops around four, five o’clock at night. Well, we left work at five o’clock so we could pick up our paper at the desk on the way out. I would read it on the tram ride home usually and when I got home my husband and parents would read it. There was a competitor to The Mail, The Despatch, they were in the centre of Birmingham.

The Mail was a very large paper, not in a tabloid format. There were lot of adverts in the papers. If you wanted to look down the adverts, the best thing was to lay it on the floor and lay down and read it, because it was such a large, large paper. Sitting on the tram to read it you would have to fold it and fold it otherwise the person next to you would be pushed off the seat. Or they too could read it at the same time. I remember that the newsprint would come off on your hands. The ink was virtually wet! So it made a bit of a mess of your hands!

People would often read the paper on the way home. They had street vendors but they hadn’t got little huts like they do now. They’d just got a bag around their neck, standing on the corner, selling the paper.

The papers were picked up from the office and taken in smaller vans. These vans were kept further up the road from the offices, and they belonged to the Birmingham Mail. The name was on the van.

I enjoyed going out to work, I was at The Mail for nearly four years when I found out that I was pregnant. I worked for a little while but the jolting on the tram every morning meant that my first stop at work was the toilets! But for those four years I really enjoyed it. I didn’t think about climbing the career ladder, I was very laid back in that respect. I was quite happy doing what I was doing. I didn’t ever think further forward.

Margaret talking to WISEArchive in 2008.

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